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Joker Phillips wants to take Cats to the next level

Phillips embraces challenge of moving UK football up the SEC ladder

ccosby@herald-leader.comAugust 29, 2010 

UK football coach Joker Phillips

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF

The reminders are everywhere.

His image is scattered throughout the Nutter Training Facility. Signs with his "Operation Win" theme surround the practice field. His face is plastered all over billboards and magazines throughout Central Kentucky.

Yes, the University of Kentucky football program finally belongs to Joker Phillips. Phillips lettered as a Wildcat from 1981-84 and served two stints as an assistant coach at UK, the last under his predecessor, Rich Brooks. When Brooks first began to consider retirement in 2008, he went to the administration and suggested that Phillips be named coach-in-waiting.

Brooks, who stepped down in January shortly after the Cats' Music City Bowl loss, brought some much-needed stability to the program, guiding UK to an unprecedented four straight bowl appearances. Now Phillips has the task of raising the bar higher, trying to push the long-suffering program into the upper echelon of the Southeastern Conference.

Change comes swiftly

Phillips said he will be forever grateful for the opportunity Brooks gave him, but he's already made it clear he's going to do things his way.

He changed the practice routine in the spring, opting for a more fast-paced approach. He fired three holdovers from Brooks' staff, including special-teams coach Steve Ortmayer, a longtime right-hand man of Brooks.

One of the biggest juggling acts for Phillips has been trying to put his own stamp on the UK program without disturbing the solid foundation laid by Brooks. Phillips said serving under Brooks for seven years gave him an up-close look at what was working and what needed fixing.

"It is a delicate balance, but the thing is, I was part of the foundation," Phillips said. "Being here, I got an understanding of the things that I thought that were really good that were in place, and I had my opinions on some things that we needed to strengthen, too. We still have that foundation that Rich and myself and all of us laid, but there were also some things, with me taking over and being in charge now, that we had to strengthen. That's what I'm here for, to make those hard-core decisions, and I made them."

UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart remembers when Brooks first approached him about naming Phillips his successor.

"Rich has always been able to identify quality coaches, and all through his career he did a great job of mentoring young coaches and helping them make a jump in the profession and get better," Barnhart said. "He came and said, 'I think Joker is very talented and is going to be a great football coach someday, and it would be very smart that when my day is done that we start transitioning him to being the head coach at Kentucky.' Considering his track record, I couldn't disagree with him."

Former college coach and current ESPN analyst Lou Holtz had Phillips on his staff at South Carolina in 2002 and said Phillips has the mentality to succeed in the SEC despite his lack of experience as a head coach.

"He's never intimidated by a situation," Holtz said. "Nothing is going to faze him. He can control his emotions. That's big. He's also going to be a players' coach. That's no knock on Coach Brooks at all. Everybody has to do it their own way. But I think the players will really relate to Joker as a head coach."

Barnhart said he knew there would be changes when Phillips took over.

"I don't think you can assume that everything stays the same," he said. "You've got to put your own signature on what is going on in the program and what you want it to look like. You can't say, 'We want this, but we want it the way you used to be.' If you give someone reins of leadership, like we have with Joker, he must have the ability within a context to run the show in the best interest of him succeeding."

Former Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti sat in the same chair Phillips is sitting in now. When Brooks left Oregon for the St. Louis Rams after the 1994 Rose Bowl, he turned the program over to Bellotti, at the time his offensive coordinator.

Bellotti went on to raise Oregon's profile even higher, turning the Ducks into a top-20 national program that boasted some of the nation's best facilities. He also made several changes along the way, including changing the uniforms and the practice and game routines. He acknowledged that it was sometimes difficult to make adjustments in the infrastructure of a successful foundation.

"Change was going to become our buzzword," Bellotti said. "We want to do some different things with the uniforms and other things to get people excited. When you come from within the staff, people assume you're going to do the same things. But you have to have your own vision and be yourself. Neither Joker nor I could be Rich Brooks. He's a totally different person. Sometimes people want to hold you to an old standard and say, 'Why are you changing things that worked before?' But you've got to get people to understand that when you make those changes you have to buy in.

"It's tough in that way, and Joker knows that. It's a fine line. But you have to be aware of the history while at the same time getting the players and fans to believe in the direction you want to go."

Brooks has spent most of the summer in Oregon and will be in Lexington for most of the football season. In an earlier interview, Brooks said he was aware there would be changes when Phillips took over and is supportive of the job Phillips has done thus far.

"I think he's doing what he needs to do," Brooks said. "He's working very, very hard. He has a great interest in developing young men. He's working hard at recruiting and selling the program. Now he needs to go out and obviously win some games."

Connecting with the kids

One of the areas Phillips felt a major upgrade was needed was recruiting. The four new assistants Phillips brought in — Greg Nord, Mike Summers, David Turner and Tee Martin — are all regarded as top-notch recruiters. He also brought in strength and conditioning coordinator Ray "Rock" Oliver to whip the team into better shape.

While making staff changes, Phillips also cited teaching ability and what he calls "juice."

"Juice is just energy, passion for the job," he said. "That's what drives kids. Kids are pretty laid back, so a lot of times they will feed off the staff. That's what will help us take this thing to the next level."

When Brooks left Oregon for the NFL, he took several assistant coaches with him. Bellotti said all assistant coaches keep in mind people they would want to hire if they eventually become head coaches.

"You have to have a list," Bellotti said. "You have to have people around you that you trust, people that you're close to, people you want working for you."

Tommy Cook lettered at UK under three different coaches: Hal Mumme, Guy Morriss and Brooks. Phillips brought back the former receiver as a graduate assistant in the off-season. Cook said Phillips' passion for the job is unparalleled.

"His work ethic sets him apart," Cook said. "The big thing I've seen with him is how much time he spends over here (at the Nutter Training Facility). He cares so much about this program, in every phase from recruiting to every single player individually. The amount of effort and love I've seen put out from him is more than I've ever seen here."

Phillips isn't a spring chicken by any means (he turned 47 in April). But he still has a youthful appearance, and is hip enough and has enough personality to connect with today's young players.

"I think that helps his guys buy in a little more, and I think that will definitely be huge in getting him over the hump," Cook said.

Climbing the SEC ladder

For Phillips, getting over the hump would mean getting UK into the discussion for the SEC Eastern Division crown. It has been debated for decades whether UK could be competitive for SEC championships in football, but Phillips and Barnhart both think it can be done.

"Why not?" Phillips said. "Why not Kentucky? We've beaten the traditional powers like Auburn, Georgia and LSU. The thing we've got to do is put together seasons where we do it on a consistent basis. Then there's the streaks. If you can break a couple of the streaks in the same season, then you've got a chance. You're in the hunt."

While competing in the SEC East makes it tougher to break through, Barnhart noted that programs such as Boise State, Utah and TCU have become players on the national landscape.

"There are a lot of non-traditional football venues who can make a large impact in college football," Barnhart said. "I don't buy into that theory at all. We're in the most difficult division and league in all of college football, certainly the top two or three, and it is very difficult. But we can recruit high-quality student-athletes to be at UK; we've proven that. We've proven we can compete with and beat some of the best football programs. We've built consistency in our program; we didn't just go to one bowl game and go away. Now we've got to figure out a way to climb the ladder, and that comes by getting better players and better depth."

Holtz, who took South Carolina from an 0-11 record in 1999 to an eight-win season and a second-place finish in the SEC East the following season, disputes the notion that you can't win at Kentucky. He said he's picking the Gamecocks, who like UK lack the history and tradition of other league powers, to win the East this season.

"You can move up the ladder at Kentucky, Vanderbilt and South Carolina," he said.

"You start winning, you keep winning, and then you raise the caliber of athletes you bring in. Kentucky's been to four straight bowl games. They just have to build that momentum. But here's the key: You have to bring in somebody better than what you've already got. You can't bring in the same caliber athletes if you want to move up the food chain. If you bring in better players every year who add something to your program, then one day you look up and you've got a team capable of competing for the SEC title."

Greater depth

Phillips said the program finally has the depth to withstand attrition, injuries and the brutal SEC schedule, which hasn't always been the case. The 2007 team was the best of the Brooks era, knocking off eventual national champion LSU. But the wear and tear of the SEC eventually caught up with the Cats and they dropped four of their last five regular-season games and finished 8-5. The next year, projected starting quarterback Curtis Pulley was dismissed from the team and two top skill players (Dicky Lyons Jr. and Derrick Locke) went down with season-ending knee injuries, or the Cats might have added a couple more wins to their 7-6 record.

One thing holding UK back in the past has been a lack of balance. When the Cats have been good offensively, they've lagged behind on defense. And when they've been decent on defense, they haven't been able to score enough points.

This season's offense looks potentially explosive with All-SEC picks Randall Cobb and Locke. But there are major questions on defense. Kentucky lost two NFL Draft picks in tackle Corey Peters and cornerback Trevard Lindley, plus a pair of All-SEC linebackers in Micah Johnson and Sam Maxwell. Two other projected starters (cornerback Paul Warford and defensive tackle Mister Cobble) were lost to academic ineligibility.

But Phillips said he doesn't expect a few personnel losses to cause the bottom to fall out like in years past.

"An injury or two here or there has taken us from a really good team to an average team in the past, and if it came at a certain position you were pretty much done for the season," he said. "But now we've got enough depth at different positions if somebody goes down somebody else steps up and delivers."

'Win-now' attitude

Unlike Charlie Strong down the road at Louisville, Phillips isn't inheriting a program that had fizzled out. And unlike Strong, he's not the new kid in town.

That would seem to eliminate the typical "honeymoon" period that's usually given to a new coach. The public perception is that Phillips needs to come out of the gate and do at least as well as Brooks did in his last few seasons.

"These jobs come with that," Barnhart said. "Certainly there's an expectation level that will continue to grow. I think the fan expectation is, 'Hey, we shouldn't miss a beat,' so no, there probably won't be a honeymoon. But Joker is equal to the task. He's surrounding himself with real quality people."

Phillips knows the pressure is on and seems unfazed by it.

"I expect to win right away," he said. "We took over a pretty strong foundation, and we fully expect to make a fifth straight bowl game this year. Honeymoon or no honeymoon, people want to win now, and so do I."

If Phillips does indeed win big, it will be done with his stamp all over the program.

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